Friday, November 27, 2015

Dear Teachers

Dear teachers,

I'd like to talk for a moment about how much tougher your job is than other professional work, how you are underpaid, and, especially, how you "deserve" your summers off.

See, a friend shared a link the other day that showed a bunch of witty memes with comments like the one above, comments that played up how difficult the teacher's job is.

No question, juggling the idiosyncrasies and increasing numbers of identified special needs of 40 (or more) students is crazy-making. It's stressful. Dealing with all the paper work and adminis-trivia is soul-crushing. But guess what? Other professionals have to do that, too.

But instead of students, they're dealing with patients, or employees they supervise, or members of the public (who are not at all comfortable or happy).

You do work long hours, longer hours than a typical hourly worker. And you bring work home. Well, guess what? So does nearly every other salaried professional I've ever met. So did I when I was working. Technology makes the office even more ever-present as professionals frequently catch up on e-mail and prepare materials after hours. The 40-hour work week is a myth. And, no, we don't earn overtime. I've never earned a penny of overtime in my working career, nor did my husband. We only get paid for 40 (or fewer) of those hours, but we work far more.

And most professionals have travel requirements as part of their work. At first, this is an enviable perk. But, increasingly, it takes away from family time. It is not a vacation -- often they're lucky if they see more than the airport, the inside of an office building, and their hotel room. If the travel is international, it screws up their body clock and exposes them to new viruses (yay). And while they're out of town, they, again, usually work far longer days to pack as much in as they possibly can. Whenever possible, they do day-trips -- down and back in one very long day -- so they won't be out of the office (or away from family) more than absolutely necessary. Those days are exhausting.

Bear in mind also that an increasing number of workers are self-employed -- consultants or contractors or those doctors and lawyers you mentioned. They don't get a single day of paid leave -- not vacation, parental, or sick leave. They also can't count on a predictable paycheque, so there's that stress.

Did you know that many of the professionals that you compare yourselves to work 12-hour overnight shifts? That's the situation for most hospital nurses. Not much time to recharge when you're on shift.

Are you really underpaid?*

At my last professional job, where I worked a 65-hour week but was paid for 35 hours, I earned significantly less than an elementary school teacher with the same number of years of experience. My job came with benefits, but no pension plan, and six days of sick leave per year. The starting salary for a registered nurse in Ottawa is $6,000 less than the starting salary for an elementary school teacher in Ottawa.

Summers off. It's a sensitive point, isn't it?

It should be. Most professional workers are lucky to get four weeks of annual vacation, and they have to use some of that for Christmas and, oh, if their kids' schools have a professional development day, then they have to use their accumulated vacation for that, too.  Pray to god no one gets sick! (Overheard conversation: "Honey, I used my leave for last March break. It's your turn this year." "But I used mine when little Hannah had chicken pox.") At my last job, we were given six days of sick leave per year. And this was in a hospital where it's actually dangerous to come to work while you're sick, so . . .

Summers are expensive for families with school-aged children -- camps and child-care add up.

Don't tell us you "deserve" your summers off, or you've "earned" them. You've negotiated them, you work for them, you benefit from them. It's a fluke that you get summers off, and I really hope you appreciate them, rather than feeling you are entitled to them.

Teachers, we need you. We value your dedication and creativity and the hard work you do. With confidence and appreciation, we entrust our children to your care. Thank you.

But, please, appreciate what you have and stop trying to convince us that you're getting a raw deal.

* Note that these salary figures are based on Ottawa-Carleton figures. I expect that salary differences are comparable across Canada, but I understand that American teachers are often paid significantly less.


  1. Teachers are amazing people - at least the really good ones who put their heart into their job are, and I don't doubt that many of them do. I too acknowledge how much we need them in our children's lives and the impact they can have. But, anyone who lives in this country and has a job is pretty darn lucky on that one fact alone, when we consider the lives of many others around the world.
    One of the main reasons I became a stay at home mom was because between my husband and I, we didn't have enough paid leave to cover all the PA days, the sick days that inevitable happen with sick children, the Christmas break, and then March break.... forget about family summer holidays: there's no paid time left!!! And we knew we were so so blessed to even have the PAID time. Well, basically it was all based on my paid time actually, because my husband has one of those jobs that 12 hour shift work and he can get called away at any time if there was an emergency and he can't just leave his job if there is a family emergency.... and, oh yeah -- he might get shot or dead. So yeah, I am not going to have to much sympathy about work week hours and vacation time when I am just happy that he comes home after each shift. And so is he.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I was actually so nervous about writing this post (and offending all my teacher friends and family) that I didn't share it on social media. Yah. I wussed out. I think I will share it though because I suspect a lot of people feel as we do.

      Praying for your husband's safety.

  2. As a (possibly former) teacher, I want to weigh in. I'm going to start with saying I've ALWAYS hated the memes that try to compare a teachers' hours with other full-time jobs. I'm the daughter of an executive professional and I would never deny that my dad puts in just as many hours, if not more than most teachers. And that doesn't even include the travel aspect. I see my friends' husbands doing the same. I'm 100% with you on that one.

    I would disagree on a few points, but with the important note that I was a teacher not only in the States, but in the southern states where there are no teachers' unions. As you noted, your salary statistics were likely comparable across Canada, but not in the States. So, where I worked, yes, we really were that underpaid. I make as much hourly now doing demos as I did as a teacher. And that's not calculating based on an inflated hourly workweek. That's based on the contracted pay for 10 months of 40-hour weeks. We get paid for 10 months of work. So summer is technically unpaid vacation. Certainly we're very lucky that we get that time, but we're not actually earning money. Many of my teacher friends work summer school, summer jobs, or direct-sale businesses to make ends meet. And in my 8 years teaching I never got a raise or cost-of-living increase because of budget cuts. So I'm going to guess that a lot of those memes are coming from teachers in the States.

    As for the stresses of the job... I've worked retail. I've been a waitress. I've worked in a corporate office and an educational office. I now do occasional demos. I can tell you working with children is nothing like working with adults. Yes, there are plenty of adults who behave like children, and I've encountered my fair share, but a) you're never faced with 25+ at the same time and b) there are usually options for handling immature adults (you can fire an employee, have a mediation with a coworker, call a cop...?) but teachers have very few options for handling problem (and even threatening) behaviors. My experience is that working with a classroom of children is just not comparable to working with coworkers, employees, or members of the public. (Patients are a different story!)

    As for "deserving" summers, I can only speak for myself. I never felt I deserved summers off. I did, however, feel that if it weren't for summers I would have quit teaching a long time ago. I certainly used my summers to recuperate and refresh my enthusiasm. And I will also add that teachers, at least where I worked, don't get actual vacation time. Obviously we get plenty of time off between winter break, spring break, and summer, so we really can't complain, but there's no flexibility. We do not get actual days to take when we choose. So if you wanted to travel out of town for a friend's wedding, or go to your grandparent's birthday celebration, but it's not during a school holiday, then you're out of luck (or stuck lying that you're "sick" and using one of your few sick days). And even when you are sick, planning for (and finding) a substitute teacher is so difficult that most teachers just go to work anyway. I skipped more than one appointment just to avoid the work of prepping for a sub. So, we do get a lot of "vacation" time, but it's definitely not flexible. It's a small trade off, but a point to be made, nonetheless.... (My response is too long for one comment :P More to come )...

    1. To me, I just saw these factors (low pay, long hours, tough kids) as a way of "weeding out" the ones who aren't meant to be there. If someone is just looking for an easy job or a good salary they're quickly going to realize teaching isn't it so you should be left with the ones whose hearts are truly in it. But now I, someone whose heart truly was in it, am finding myself debating if I want to ever go back to teaching. And I have several friends who, after almost a decade of teaching, are quitting or debating doing so as well. Obviously many other working professionals face that as well- when stress makes the job almost unbearable. So I certainly wouldn't say we're getting a "raw deal". But there's no denying that it IS a tough job. (And when it comes to "raw deals" I'd say hospital nurses and police officers win that one by far!!)
      Just my perspective from south of the border. ;)
      I also want to say I appreciated reading this perspective. It's not often that someone is brave enough to bring up this point of view. But, you're right. Teachers whine a lot. (And I do know you obviously appreciate the job teachers do, as well!)

    2. Thank you for the long and thoughtful response, Diane.

      I had never really thought about the lack of choice when it comes to vacation. It's a good point. For many of us, we can choose to take a week off when we feel ourselves approaching burnout. (If it's gone that far, a week probably isn't enough though.) And I've never worried about being able to attend a wedding or funeral, or to take vacation at off-peak times.

      It's also true that we don't generally face 25 angry/misbehaving employees or clients in front of us in a single moment. That would not be bearable.

      When we lived in the States, I was disappointed to see how low the teachers' salaries were -- not really enough to cover childcare and living costs if that were your only family income. Canadian teachers have a much better deal, but they are unionized. I think some of my frustration comes from seeing Canadian teachers spreading these memes.


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